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How the National Archive of Native Heritage Protects Indigenous Art and Artifacts

How the National Archive of Native Heritage, Protects Indigenous Art and Artifacts

Many archival collections contain sensitive and sacred materials. In some cases, the public release of such information can cause irreparable harm.

Collections Management

The information gathered and stored by libraries, archives, and museums often has profound implications for Native American communities. The public’s release of or access to specialized information and knowledge can impact their quality of life, their practice of religion, and the future of their people. In some instances, this information can cause irreparable harm.

Institutions should consider various options to avoid such harm when dealing with culturally sensitive information and knowledge in their collections. This includes the development of research protocols and community-based agreements for specialized or traditional information. They should also explore options for retaining records in trust and under co-custody with a community until the information is appropriately used, such as through repatriation or knowledge transfer.

In addition, archivists should seek to understand the perspectives and goals of the national archive of native heritage in caring for archival materials. This can include promoting changes to established lexicons and enhancing catalog records in consultation with communities to provide contemporary, culturally responsive language that describes the context of an object or record.

The National Archives’ collection of Native American artifacts is vast and varied. It ranges from traditional basketry to wampum and from historical documents to maps. 


The act requires museums, universities, and federal agencies to catalog their Native American collections, identify the living heirs, culturally affiliated Indian tribes, or Native Hawaiian organizations of remains and artifacts in their custody, and make them available for repatriation. It has profoundly impacted the day-to-day practice of archaeology and physical anthropology.

It’s a laudable goal, but only part of the picture. The rest is how institutions use loopholes in the law to slow down repatriation and try to rationalize maintaining items taken from a community without its knowledge or consent. This is known as salvage science and has been the dominant paradigm in academic (and some non-academic) research for decades, believing that Indigenous peoples are mere objects of study.

Institutions also rely on “salvage experts,” hired by museums and collectors, to find and dig up Native items, particularly artifacts from graveyards and villages. They then sell or donate them to museums, auctions, and shows where they can be displayed for money. 

Require a written agreement between the archivist and the community to care for and manage archival records and other materials. Direct researchers to community protocols and share information about agreements with communities for culturally responsive care and use of Native American archival materials with potential donors.


Many Western repositories’ most critical archival collections are from indigenous communities. To make these resources more accessible to Indigenous users, institutions should focus on decolonizing their archival practices and training.

Encourage staff to learn more about the communities where they receive archival materials and respect their protocols when examining them. Involve tribal archivists, specialists, and elders as instructors for information science programs and courses and promote the inclusion of cross-cultural training in these classes.

Examine assumptions about established library and archives practices that directly contradict Native American principles and methods. For example, some documentary material may only need to be preserved for a while. It should be repatriated to the community of origin if it is sensitive or contains personal identifiers such as photos of a sacred ceremony or gravesite.

Protecting cultural patrimony from theft requires vigorous enforcement of existing law. The recently passed Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act provides stiffer penalties for those who illegally export sacred objects from the United States and creates a certification process to ensure that items are not exported without permission. In addition, it calls for a federal agency to work with Native communities to identify items that should not leave the country and to facilitate a path to voluntary return. 


For archivists and librarians trained to champion intellectual freedom, the idea that some knowledge may be collectively owned and not always accessible as a right can be challenging. Yet, a balance of perspectives is needed if the archival profession is to serve the needs of all communities.

Non-tribal archivists and librarians should recognize that Native American communities are sovereign governments with associated laws and rights. They should also become aware of the differences in interpreting and applying professional ethical codes to collecting, preserving, handling, accessing, publishing, and using physical and digital American Indian archival materials.

Seek active consultations with authorized community representatives to review culturally affiliated collections to determine whether problems of original collecting should lead to access and use restrictions, repatriation, or the transfer of responsibility and ownership for some materials to communities of origin. Initiate conversations with communities to discuss ways to limit access to and publication of esoteric or ceremonial information that may be sensitive to their members’ health, safety, or spiritual well-being.

Encourage collecting institutions to establish meaningful relationships with Native communities and seek equitable and beneficial partnerships. Provide staff training to understand and respect Native American culture and history and encourage cross-cultural professional exchanges. Ensure that a representative group of community members participates in hiring processes and is incorporated into governing bodies and advisory boards to avoid tokenism.


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